Sunday, April 26, 2009

Pink House

From the Places I Have Lived series. Every place I have lived is in New York or New Jersey and as far as I know they are all still standing, so there is a chance I can go to all of them.

304 West 104th St (age 21-22)

One-year lease, right out of college. This was the first place I had where my name was on the lease, not just me taking a room in somebody else's apartment, or living in a dorm. I shared it with a girl, and I'm married to her now, so that worked out.

We had the apartment in the back half of the top floor. It had a living room with kitchen fittings in one corner, a small bedroom, and an old but very spacious bathroom with a skylight. I think it was a now-laughable $175 a month, but that was a lot for one person with a low paying job and another with the negative income of a grad student.

We got what we paid for: minimal maintenance, and minimal heat. Sometimes we took the valves off the radiators and watched weary little puffs of steam stagger out having made their long journey from the basement. Other times the radiators got hot.

I think we had an extra mattress serving as a couch in the living room, and a $99 black and white TV to watch. Cool. I can't remember whether we had a table to eat at. We might have sat on the floor.

The chest of drawers in the bathroom was there when we came and stayed when we left. That had to be the largest bathroom I ever had. You could have a chest of drawers in there and hardly notice.

We adopted the other piece of furniture we found in the apartment and took it with us when we left. We still have it, and we still call it the Striped Thing. It was painted orange and white, with diagonal stripes on the sides. What is the correct term for a thing like this? Can it be a closet if it is not built into the wall? It has a few shelves inside forming almost cubical spaces to put stuff. The door is panelled and has a nice brass clasp to hold it shut.

Not long after we took our next apartment I painted the Striped Thing solid green, and so it is today. I'm not sure this color is better. It certainly does not go with anything else in our current bedroom. It is faintly ridiculous that we still own found furniture from our early days but it is not the only one we have.

It was just as well we didn't have much stuff since everything had to be carried up, and later down, the stairs. The brownstone's ancient main stairway sagged away from the side wall. None of the floors were level either. I was used to that though, from previous apartments I'd stayed in. In one of them someone had a few marbles and it was fun to carefully place one on the floor and see where it went by itself.

Google tells me a Financial Analyst for Bear Stearns lived in this building in 2008 and donated $2,750 to Obama. It's nice to see he could spare more than I could. I have suggested the level of income we had back then, and the young woman in the front apartment on our floor was earning probably a similar figure by importing knitted garments from South America. The building must have been fixed up sometime in the past few decades if it now houses Wall St types. This was a good neighborhood in 1973, but 304 was the worst building in it.

The most memorable feature of the building was outside. The stone was painted pink. I don't know any reason to paint a brownstone at all, but if you do, would it be pink? I don't mean hot pink. A dull color pink. No one knew why. The pink paint was peeling of course.

I had a weird experience. I took a look at the building about three weeks before I came back with the camera, and I could swear it was still pink and still peeling. That's what I reported when I got home. I said it was in exactly the same state of shittiness that it was in when we lived there, and marvelled that a building could get neither better nor worse but be maintained to just that precise level of decay, as if it was an historical site restored and maintained as it was at a certain date. But it isn't really painted pink any more, as you can see. Did I have some kind of hallucination? Wow. It's not as if I wanted to see it pink.

How we lived our lives then was just crazy. Monday to Thursday, I worked a 3 to 11 pm shift, while she must have gone off to school early in the morning. Were we really apart from something like 7:15 in the morning to 11:15 at night, with no meals together? I think we were. And I think my fifth workday was Sunday from 2 to 10, or something like that. So we had one full day a week together, on Saturday. It's amazing what people can put up with when they don't know any better. I finally got onto a more decent 10 to 6 Monday to Friday shift around the time we moved out of here.

I told her that I am writing this and have deliberately not asked what she remembers. Some laughs will be coming. I'm sure I remember some of this wrong, and I'm sure I have forgotten things.

I'd like to include a photograph from the time we lived here, but we do not have one.

Next time: Drop.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Amiable Child

This year, once winter ended, I began going out for walks at lunchtime. When I walk north along Riverside Drive, I go as far as the playground just past Grant's Tomb. Those who have walked that far will be familiar with the other resting place across the road from the Grants, the grave of the "amiable child" St Claire Pollock.

There must be fifty web pages already about little St Claire. People continue to come upon his grave unexpectedly, and wonder about the circumstances. And they're touched by the death of a small child. Often there are a few wildflowers left, or even small toys. A small dead potted Christmas tree was still there in March.

Grant's Tomb was dedicated on April 27, 1897, and the increased number of visitors there brought new attention to the grave in the form of newspaper articles that tried to provide background information for the curious. Some modern sources including the web page of the Riverside Park Fund
say that the original monument was replaced in that year, but this seems to be denied by several descriptions not long afterwards that call the words worn and hard to read. For example the New York City Standard Guide, 1918, says "the inscriptions have been blurred by the passing of a hundred years". The Fund is more likely correct in recording that the monument was replaced in 1967 by the cleanly incised replica we see today. A slightly different version of the story was offered in 2000 by a New York Times story, that it was just the urn that was replaced in 1897 by a marble copy which was now itself in storage.

The site of the grave was miles out of town at the time of St Claire's short life. The property in this area was sold in August 1796 by Nicholas de Peyster to George Pollock, a merchant in New York. He held it only until 1802, and after passing through a few hands, it was sold in 1807 to Michael Hogan, who divided it in two and called the northern part of the land Claremont. While it is tempting to say that the child's name was involved, more likely the name comes from Hogan's birthplace, County Clare, Ireland.

The large residence Hogan built became a public house sometime after it was acquired by the Post family in 1821. A newspaper account from 1895 says that the Claremont Inn "was once known as the Monument House, because of its proximity to the marble monument over the grave of 'an amiable child'". It must have stood close to the cliff edge, and therefore near the grave. When the City purchased some of the property for Riverside Park in 1872, the inn had to be moved. From that time until 1950, when it burned down, it stood where the playground is now, just north of Grant's Tomb. (New York Times, "Reasons for Living on the Heights", 4/7/1895 ; and "Old Claremont's Owners", 12/26/1909)

Above, here's a postcard image from about 1910. The point of view is mysterious, somewhere high above Riverside Drive ; I wonder how they got it. I think that's St Claire's grave at the center of the red circle I added (click to enlarge), at the north end of that side walkway. That's the way it is today, at the end of a side walkway below the level of the roadway you see there. That stretch is full of trees now, but there were only a few specimen trees a hundred years ago. There was a fine view of the river and the Palisades on the New Jersey shore. The Claremont Inn peeks out from the right side of Grant's Tomb. Its original location was farther left, probably where the roadway is.

Above, another postcard image from about 1910, and my photograph of the same scene in March 2009. Down the sidewalk in the distance, the construction fence in the modern photograph obscures the restoration of the pergola you can see in the postcard. There was once a view up the Hudson from this place on the roadside. The phenomenal growth of trees is not due to neglect, since most of those seen here were clearly planted as shade trees. The city is actually greener now than it was a hundred years ago. Even though I grabbed the photograph before the trees were in leaf, the trunks and branches alone now hide that view.

St Claire's grave is beyond the construction area, so comparing these two views, it would be at about the left side of that nifty Fifth Avenue Coach bus, a type introduced in 1907.

It's time to take a look at the grave.

There it is, the smallest cemetery in Manhattan, and tying for the smallest anywhere. Someone left flowers.

So who was St Claire?

The owner of the property is recorded in deeds as George Pollock, and his son St Claire is recorded by Trinity Church as being baptized on November 11, 1792. Assuming he was born not long before, St Claire was a bit over 4 years 9 months at his death— in the fifth year of his age. George Pollock was a merchant who lived and worked in lower Manhattan. There were three brothers, Carlisle, Hugh, and George. Carlisle was the namesake of Carlisle Street (just north of Rector Street). A directory of 1795 places George at 91 Water Street, and another of 1801 places his house at 26 Whitehall Street and his office at 95 Front Street. The Pollock brothers' uncle Oliver Pollock was active in financing the American Revolution.

St Claire's mother was Catherine nee Yates, named as George's wife in deeds. Her sister Sophia was married to Carlisle Pollock, and her father or brother Richard Yates was in business with George. The Yates family were important in New York and a later descendant was a governor of the state.

The house far outside town, in an area called Strawberry Hill, was a summer home. New York was ravaged every summer by yellow fever and other diseases, of causes and transmission not understood at the time, but it was correctly observed that getting out of town avoided the worst of it. Businessmen who could afford to do so acquired summer homes and sent the wife and children there for their safety. St Claire was living at Strawberry Hill at the time he died on July 15.

The death of St Claire is now most commonly attributed to his falling down the cliff adjacent to the grave. This is so stated on a modern park sign nearby. There is no evidence for it, and it is not even mentioned in the older accounts of a hundred years ago.

A descendant of a family who lived in the Claremont house said in 1900 that as a child he heard from his grandparents the tragic story of the amiable child, "who was drowned while on a fishing excursion with his father to the famous Fishing Rock that still is known to exist opposite the lonely grave".

While this preserves an old story, it seems to be just as suspicious as the cliff story in trying to tie the location of the grave to the death. There is probably no connection at all. The location of the grave is much more likely to relate to the beautiful view of the Hudson and surrounding country. It is very simply a fine spot from which to contemplate the wonders of this world and the meaning of life and death. George Pollock supports this view in the letter that I will quote just below.

St Claire in my opinion died of disease or infection, the common causes of childhood mortality in those days. No unusual story is required to explain his death. He was the first member of the family to die since the family had acquired the property just one year earlier, and so became the first burial in what his father had planned as a family cemetery.

George Pollock's business failed not long after St Claire's death. We can only guess what effect the loss of the child may have played. George sold the Strawberry Hill property to a neighbor, Gulian Verplanck, or rather to his widow by the time the sale was completed in 1799. The burial plot was however excepted from the deed at that time. George wrote to Mrs Verplanck from England in a letter of January 18, 1800:

There is a small inclosure near your boundary fence within which lie the remains of a favorable child, covered by a marble monument. I had intended that space as the future cemetery of my family. ... The surrounding ground will fall into the hands of I know not whom, whose prejudice or better taste may remove the monument and lay the inclosure open. You will confer a peculiar and interesting favor upon me by allowing me to convey the inclosure to you, so that you will consider it as a part of your own estate, keeping it, however, always inclosed and sacred. There is a white marble funeral urn, prepared to place on the monument, which Mr Darley will put up, and which will not lessen its beauty. ... I have long considered these grounds as of my own creation, having selected them when wild, and brought the place to its present form. Having so long and delightfully resided there, I feel an interest in it that I cannot get rid of but with time.

The city deed records show however that the plot was instead conveyed in 1803 to John Prevost, who then held the office of Recorder of the City of New York. By some means the plot was maintained as a tiny cemetery for seventy years, at which time it became city property as part of Riverside Park.

(The whole section above is sourced from four well researched articles. "Little Child Buried near the Great Hero" by James Richards, newspaper clipping dated 4/3/1897 available at New York Times, letters to the editor from Elizabeth Akers, 7/21/1900 and 8/11/1900 ; and another from the anonymous "A L L", 8/11/1900.)

Above, the grave site in two views about a hundred years apart. By midsummer the view of the Hudson (seen here in March 2009) is almost lost in the greenery, which is marked by the amazing sign "forever wild", as if it had not all grown up in the past few decades.

The spiky iron fence around the grave plot appears to have survived intact, but looks can be deceiving. The monument itself is not the same one. A comparison shows how well the 1967 replica duplicated the original base and the 1897 urn. It is telling that the well-worn inscription is not even visible in the older photograph.

The back of the monument has a quote from Job, in the King James version, words that would have been used then in the funeral service. He cometh like a flower and is cut down.

There has been scholarly debate about what effects a high infant and child mortality rate would have had on parental affection. Philip Aries wrote in his influential work Centuries of Childhood (1962) that in older days parents avoided investing time and affection on small children, to avoid to some degree the grief that would so likely follow. His views, at first accepted, have since been widely criticized. The bond of parent to child is too strong for most mothers or fathers to deny.

The Pollocks certainly loved St Claire. They provided an elaborate monument that does not even mention their own names, and they took special care to see that it was preserved even after they left New York. There is something about the little grave that continues to inspire passers-by to contemplate their own "few days". He fleeth also as a shadow and continueth not.


Postscript: There is a second memorial to the child. Under an alternate spelling he has been commemorated by St Clair Place, a short section of 129th St near the Hudson River, so named in 1920. It's only a few blocks from the grave, but about a hundred feet lower.

And: A shout-out to Kathryn for helping me shoot the photographs.

Next time: Pink House.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Runner Girl

A few weeks ago I had a really nice day. One thing after another went my way, and I think the first thing was what set up the others.

I could just say what happened, but it won't make sense without some background. You wouldn't get it. We need to take a trip through my brain.

I like the familiarity of routines. I like settling in and doing a series of actions in pretty much the same order each time. It's pleasing. But I don't want to do exactly the same thing every time, because that would be boring. I want variations too. I like the routine to be both the same and different. Yeah I know. But it is possible.

It's like when you create art.

You want to hit just the right balance that makes the art pleasing. It's familiar, and yet it's fresh. Then it works. You and I could have a different sense of what the right balance is. But I think we might share this idea of being pulled two ways and finding the sweet spot in between where it's just right.

Life is a performing art. In a routine, a series of actions, I would say there are three kinds of variation you could have.

The first type is controlled. You deliberately choose to do one step differently, just to be different, you might say. You get to pick what the variation is.

The other two types are not under your control. The variations are introduced by other people or by chance.

The second type is when something totally unexpected just happens. Wham! You had no idea it was coming. There it is. It comes out of nowhere and interrupts what you were going to do. But you want to be open to this kind. It may have interfered with what you planned, but sometimes that's a good thing. See what it is, evaluate it, sometimes go with it.

The third type is the synthesis of the first two, and it's what I'm mainly going to talk about. It's a chance event, but not completely unexpected. You know it might happen, but you don't know exactly when, and sometimes it doesn't happen at all. So you're prepared for it, and it becomes part of the routine, and yet it is a chance event, and you wonder each time whether it will happen this time, and when.

Now, let's run through my morning routine, so you can see how this works.

I used to take the 6:54 train, but more recently I have been taking the one at 7:34. The routine is the same though.

Here's what I do. Wake up just before the alarm clock will ring, and shut it off so my wife can sleep. Shower. Get dressed. Go downstairs and eat something (and I do vary what it is). Go to the table at the back of the living room and collect the train pass, keys, wallet, and loose change. Cell phone on my belt. Go to the door, put on the appropriate layers. Out, lock the door. Stand, breathe fresh air, look at the world. Now, set off on a three-quarter mile walk to the station through quiet suburban streets. See Runner Girl. Walk into downtown and go around to the station. Buy the paper from the box I like, not the other box. Get coffee at the bakery and sit down with the paper. I don't leave at exactly the same time each day, so the bakery is my buffer. I might be there five minutes, or fifteen, waiting for time to catch up to me. Then I go up to the platform at the right time. The rest does not matter here.

Probably one of the items on the list seemed different to you than the others. It's the one we're here for. Runner Girl.

I said the routine was the same for both trains, and it is. I used to see her running toward me, and now she's running in the same direction I am going, so I see her running away from me. Her schedule and mine just happen to overlap, along the same stretch of road, both times.

When I used to see her running toward me, I noticed two things. No, not those two things. This is not that kind of story.

The first one is that Runner Girl looks like Jenna Fischer, who plays Pam on The Office. Specifically she looks like Pam in season one, when Pam had that blank look on her face almost all the time. Well, after all, Runner Girl is not at a party, she's running. But that'll tell you what she looks like.

The second thing is that most of the time, when she passed me she did something. Picture someone running, the lower arms going forward, right? After I'd seen her a few times she started doing a little wave of one hand as she got to me, just from the wrist, the way the royals do it. She didn't break stride and her face didn't change. But still, almost all the runners and joggers around here completely ignore people they pass, and Runner Girl did that one little thing.

Anyway neither of those things matters. The point is that Runner Girl is a type three variation in the morning routine. I'm not walking at exactly the same time every day, and she's not running at exactly the same time either. I might not see her at all some days, and when I do see her I don't know exactly when it will happen or where I'll be along the walk. I am not surprised to see her, because I usually do, but I never know on any particular day whether I will. So the mornings are not completely predictably the same, and that introduces that nice variable element that makes each day a little different.

When I took the earlier train, I could at least see her in the near distance coming down the road, and by the time she passed me I knew it was going to happen. Now I don't. Runner Girl runs quiet. She doesn't puff and pant like some of the local runners and joggers, and her footsteps are light. So I hear nothing. Suddenly she's passing me and running on ahead, but I don't know ahead of time. I don't get the little hand wave any more, and I don't see her face. But that does not matter. It still counts. That part of the routine has happened.

So now we are ready to start the day I want to tell you about.

Here we go. I got up just before the alarm, showered, dressed, ate, picked up the stuff, put on a hooded sweatshirt, and stepped out, and locked the door. It was a late winter morning, crisp, and when I stood there looking around at the front yard I could see the leaves of bulb plants pushing up, and even a few bulb plants, snowdrops, in bloom. Spring was coming. I set off down the road, expecting to see Runner Girl, go into town, buy the paper from the box I liked, not the other box, get a coffee, and sit in the bakery. The mornings had been getting lighter as the dawn came earlier each day. A positive mood prevailed.

A different thing happened this day as I walked. A car was coming toward me along the road, which happens often enough, but the car was making an odd grinding sound. As it passed I idly turned my head to watch it, as if I would be able to see what was making the noise, the way you do. But as I turned my head


SHE WAS RIGHT THERE! I thought I was alone with my thoughts but Runner Girl was almost right next to me! At that EXACT MOMENT as the car passed she was just about to run past. She was one running stride away. I must have jumped a little, and I just looked at her face, and that's when it happened.

She flashed a HUGE SMILE at me, and dropped right back to the usual face, and ran on. It was over in a split second.

It was the SECOND type of variation! It was the crazy unpredictable event that just happens completely out of freakin' nowhere, and all you can do is try to deal with it when it comes. I had NO CLUE that Runner Girl was there, and ABSOLUTELY no reason to expect that she would give me that smile. I had never seen her smile at all! What was the chance that she would be there EXACTLY when that car made me turn my head? Not to mention the chance that she would smile? It's impossible.

Oh, maybe she smiled because she was startled. I've seen girls do that. Whatever. Doesn't matter.

What matters is that the smile hit me without warning and drilled itself into my brain, and I was happier for the next few hours. All the way to the city, all the way into my office. I have no idea who Runner Girl is. I certainly don't think the smile meant anything. But it did something.

So I decided I was going to pass it along.

I didn't know when, or to whom. I thought it was better not to plot it out. I felt the moment would come, and I should just be ready for it.

A few hours into the work day I went to a meeting. I got there right on time, which, where I work, meant that I was the first one there except the presenter. I walked over to the far side of our little meeting room and sat at the table near her. I know her and I figured I'd say hello and stuff while she was fiddling with the projection equipment.

But there was a third person there after all. She was sitting in the corner across from me. It was somebody I'd never seen before, and she looked a little out of place. I was still feeling great and I figured this was it. I smiled at her. And it worked. She smiled back and said hello and told me who she was, and I told her my name, and she brightened considerably and said— get this, because I don't hear this every day— she likes my web pages. She likes my web pages?! Holy shit. I eagerly waited for her to go on, but then some more people came in and ruined the moment. But I'm still counting it as the second Good Thing of the day.

Number three Good Thing was that the presenter, during her talk, thanked me twice for my excellent help in the project she was talking about. Well, I had helped, but that's just what I do. Still, you don't always hear thanks when you have helped on somebody else's project, so I'll count that as another Good Thing. It's always nice to hear it.

Now because this was a lunchtime meeting with food, I had accepted the idea that by going to it I'd be missing lunch with my friends, but that worked out too. A fourth Good Thing. They were just leaving for a late lunch when I got back, and they were going to a place where I could sit with them and have a beer while they ate, so I did that too. I even thought I should tell them why I was happy that day, right then and there, but I started thinking that if I just said a Runner Girl had smiled at me out of nowhere, it wouldn't make a lot of sense. Maybe it still doesn't.

But it was definitely a good day.

Next time: Amiable Child.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

In a Bag Concealed

Blog Post Number 1

Welcome to War of Yesterday. That's the title of a story I'll tell sometime, but it's not ready yet and it's not the right one to start with anyway. This first one will be relatively short and simple. Better stuff is coming. My goal is to post something new for each Monday. Let's see what happens.

Penn Station

My journey to work takes me through the New Jersey Transit portions of Penn Station. The station house— everything above track level— is a horribly designed replacement of the original Pennsylvania Railroad Station that was torn down in the 1960s. Good design makes the organization of space clear. Walk into Grand Central Terminal and notice how the design of the building itself draws you toward the main room, and once there how clear it is where to get tickets and where the tracks are. Not Penn Station. Without signs you're lost, and you can be lost even with the signs. I find my way by instinct and insider knowledge built up over years of hard commuting. It's a game. Maybe I'll describe how to play sometime. I almost don't look at the signs, but I have to say, three of them really stand out. Let's take them in inverse order of insanity.

Third place:

This way to New Jersey!

Maybe you think all the platforms at Penn Station have a sign like this at the west end, and that it is normal for station staff or train engineers to get turned around occasionally and not know whether they're facing New Jersey or Long Island. The first thing you need to know is that this sign is unique. The other platforms don't have one.

The thing that is totally crazy is that the train you see there next to the sign is on Track 2. Tracks 1 to 4 are stub tracks. At the other end of this platform, Track 2 ends at a bumper in front of a concrete wall. There is no chance of the engineer going out the wrong way.

I have really no idea about the small matching sign above it that has just a white dot.

Second place:

What must have happened here is that people got so excited about coming up with a phrase like "be it in a bag concealed" that their brains got addled and they lost track of where the sentence was going.

I don't know where they got the wording from. I am happy to say no language this silly is found in the New York City Administrative Code,Title 10, Public Safety, Section 125, which is about the consumption of alcoholic beverages, but says nothing at all about bags concealed.

The claim that all person(s) will be prosecuted is nonsense. A good defense would point out
station management's longstanding practice of renting space to countless establishments selling cold beer to take out (duly licensed) and raise questions of entrapment. The law will of course really be enforced selectively against person(s) whose presence is not wanted for some other reason. It's almost like prohibiting photography.

The winner:

Right. Press the STOP button only when the escalator is not moving. Then nobody gets hurt.

It could have been worse. One of these words could have been in quotation marks.

Next time: Either Runner Girl or Amiable Child.